In communities around the country , today is set aside to honor César Chávez , a man who led a historic movement for civil rights, labor rights and human rights. Chávez worked hard to get a square deal for farm workers , migrant workers and people without a political voice. Chávez’s movement is still in motion today—with as much liberation and controversy as when he was marching 40 years ago.
But my reason to celebrate César Chávez here is his passion for education. At the height of his work with the labor movement, Chávez connected the fight for wages with a struggle for self-respect. “What is at stake is human dignity,” he said. “If a man is not accorded respect, he cannot respect himself, and if he does not respect himself, he cannot demand it.” A philosophical statement such as this reflected a commitment to deep thought and the elevating power of learning. But it was not just for intellectuals: “We must understand that the highest form of freedom carries with it the greatest measure of discipline,” Chávez said. “We need to help students and parents cherish and preserve the ethnic and cultural diversity that nourishes and strengthens this community—and this nation.” (My emphasis.)
In short, education would empower the individual, build a stronger community and build a bridge between communities that had been in conflict. “Preservation of one’s own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures,” he said. “Self-dedication is a spiritual experience.”
In 1973, four educators opened a “College Without Walls” in Oregon, naming it Colegio César Chávez and featuring a Chicano studies program—the nation’s first. The college existed for 10 years, and Latino studies programs have become the norm in U.S. higher education since then.
“There is no substitute for hard work, 23 or 24 hours a day. And there is no substitute for patience and acceptance.” César Chávez set the example, working himself to exhaustion in service to his cause. “The end of all knowledge must be the building up of character,” Chávez said. The depth of his character proves his absolute genius.
¡Felíz Cumpleaños——Happy Birthday, César Chávez!